Egypt’s counter-terrorism shortcomings hamper political stability

Egypt’s counter-terrorism shortcomings hamper political stability

The rise in terror attacks underscores the renewed threat from terrorism in Egypt. The Palm Sunday bombings in two Coptic churches resulted in the adoption of tougher security measures, prompting fears for the country’s political stability.

A week before Easter celebrations on April 9, explosions at two Coptic churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria killed 49 people and injured more than 100 in what was the country’s deadliest attack in months. The suicide bombings were the latest in a series of attacks that have targeted Egypt’s Coptic minority since late 2016. While terrorist incidents against the military and political figures have been numerous since Sisi’s rise to power in 2013, attacks have become more acute and Islamic State-affiliated groups have stepped up their activities outside the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security forces have been battling an Islamist insurgency.

In the aftermath of the recent attacks, the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency in a bid to fight the threat of terrorism. The multiplication of attacks since the end of 2016 has nonetheless laid bare the failings of Egypt’s counterterrorism policies and the population’s lack of trust in the country’s security apparatus. Tougher security measures are also reawakening concerns about Sisi’s growing authoritarianism and its impact on Egypt’s political stability in the months ahead.

St. Mark’s Cathedral, which was bombed by militants last December.

Egypt’s deep security crisis

Egypt has experienced a series of spectacular attacks in recent months, starting with the explosion of a bomb near St. Mark’s Cathedral in Central Cairo last December. ISIS claimed the April 9 double bombing, which came just a month after ISIS released a propaganda video warning of further attacks in Egypt. The ISIS-affiliated militant group Sinai Peninsula has launched terror attacks on an almost daily basis since Sisi took power in 2013. While previous attacks mainly targeted military outposts and security forces in the Sinai, the recent selection of targets signals a shift in Egypt’s terrorist threat. The bombings in Tanta and Alexandria are consistent with ISIS’s identification of soft targets and small-scale but incredibly acute attacks. Additionally, they specifically targeted Christians, who represent around 10% of Egypt’s 90 million population.

The increase in terrorist attacks has harmed the country economically by harming Egypt’s reputation as a safe place for tourism. Tourism represents a key source of income for millions of Egyptians and the decline of tourism revenues has hit the country hard, especially since the downing of a Russian plane above the Sinai in 2015. In 2016 alone, Egypt experienced a 40% decline in tourism revenues.

The Egyptian government’s response to these attacks has also created political blowback. Sisi’s tough stance on terrorism has been a cornerstone of his presidency and was reflected in his 2014 inaugural speech; when he declared that there would be “no leniency and truce with those who resort to violence.” In August 2015, the Egyptian government’s approval of stringent new counterterrorism laws, including the establishment of special courts, sparked criticism from members of the civil society and the international community for curtailing rights. Failure to stop the Islamist insurgency in the peninsula coupled the recent upsurge in terrorist violence has dealt a severe blow to the government’s counterterrorism strategy.

Former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s current president.

The state of emergency

The establishment of a three-month state of emergency underscores the ambiguities of Egypt’s fight against terrorism. While fighting terrorism is nominally the government’s key priority, there are fears that the newly-established state of emergency – which grants security forces greater surveillance powers – will tighten the president’s grip on power but will do little to address the terror threat.

The increase in terrorist casualties has dealt a severe blow to Sisi’s authority. The failure by Egyptian intelligence agencies to predict the recent coordinated bombings in Tantana and Alexandria call the government’s ability to protect the population into question. In October 2011, General Tantawi claimed to have eradicated terrorist organisations in the Sinai and described the situation in the Sinai as “100 percent secure.” Six years later, Egyptians’ trust in their security forces is at its lowest amid growing security challenges. As terror attacks continue, public distrust of the government will deepen.

Politically, the attacks could also weaken the Egyptian president. Christians have been among Sisi’s most loyal supporters, but the recent string of attacks targeting Christian is likely to erode the president’s support base. Popular discontent with state of emergency in place during the 30-year rule of Hosni Moubarak was also instrumental in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. The decision to reinstate emergency law (which could last beyond the initial three-month period) will no doubt fuel controversy in the months ahead and bolster opposition to the government, even as Egypt’s economic difficulties weaken the government further. In short, the government’s response to the growing Islamist militancy could combine with Egypt’s pre-existing economic problems to create an explosive situation.

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